BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Chris Zebroski of Bristol Rovers challenges Stephen Warnock of Aston Villa during the FA Cup Third Round match sponsored by Budweiser between Bristol Rovers and Aston Villa at Memorial Stadium on January 7, 2012 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
It wasn't the gaudy scoreline I may have been hoping for, but Aston Villa were well and truly in control of Bristol Rovers for 90 minutes and never really got out of first gear in defeating the struggling League Two side 3-1. It would have been 3-0 if not for a careless Richard Dunne back pass that was intercepted and finished by Rovers striker Scott McGleish far too late for it to matter. Villa's goals were provided by Marc Albrighton, Gabby Agbonlahor and Ciaran Clark with all three the result of some horrendous defending by the home side and nice skill by the scorers. Albrighton's in particular was the result of a nice team move that saw the young winger latch onto an inch-perfect through ball from Stiliyan Petrov to put Villa on top just before half. Agbonlahor, who came on at the start of the second half as a substitute for Emile Heskey, used his speed and dribbling skill on a run through seemingly half of Bristol's defense before finishing low from outside the box. Clark took a pass near the halfway line, was met with no pressure at all and decided to give it a go, using some nice footwork to find space just outside the box and curl a shot past Rovers keeper Michael Poke.
It was evident pretty early on that the pitch was an absolute mess. With that in mind Villa came out playing some very direct football, forcing the home side very deep and giving themselves the space in which to play a bit more of a patient, possession based game for the final two-thirds of the game. On a different day on a less terrifying pitch we might have seen a bit more attacking ambition from Villa, but it was established rather early that Rovers weren't going to be doing much in the way of threatening goal and the visitors were more than content to knock the ball around casually and wait for openings. When they came Villa did a decent job of capitalizing, and with some better finishing it could have been an uglier final score.
It's difficult to really evaluate performances against a side as poor as Bristol Rovers (and make no mistake, they are a really awful side at the moment) but there were certainly some bright spots. Marc Albrighton looked excellent on the day, showing the sort of everywhere-at-once energy that made him such an effective player for so much of last season. It really looks as though his confidence has returned, and that can only be good news. Stephen Ireland also looked good today, popping up in the right positions and playing some nice balls. Things really sparked when Agbonlahor entered the game; Darren Bent was largely invisible for the first half, but he and Gabby have strong chemistry that was evident the moment Agbonlahor entered the game. It also appears as though Barry Bannan has purchased a comb, which is a welcome development.
So, not a lot to take from this one; Villa never had to try all that hard, and given the condition of the pitch and the lack of depth in the squad that's probably not the worst thing. They did what they needed to do, it was never especially uncomfortable and it would appear as though they escaped without any major injuries. Not bad for a third-round FA Cup game. I mean, at least we didn't lose to a fascist.